Practicing Mindfulness in a Time of Uncertainty and COVID-19

**By Astrid Pujari, MD**

The coronavirus, or COVID-19, is challenging all of us to find inner strength during a time of much uncertainty in our world. Each of us is affected by this health crisis, and we are all learning to navigate our “new normal.” While we cannot control our external environment, we can control our reaction to it and our thoughts, which is why staying mindful is so important right now.

As a trained physician in integrative holistic medicine, I want to share with you how to practice mindfulness, what it is and how it can help strengthen and steady our minds.

What it means to be mindful

Being mindful is about learning to respond rather than react. In any event we go through in life, whether positive or negative, we will experience an internal reaction first. Then, there’s a brief moment where we decide what happens next – what we say or what we do.

Most of the time, if we are not present with our thoughts, we will react based off of past experiences, fears, programming and fight-or-flight responses. These reactions might not be as helpful as we intend. Instead, we need to pause and focus on the words, the triggers, the events we are experiencing and ask ourselves in that moment how we really feel. Whether it’s thinking about COVID-19 or getting stuck in traffic, being mindful lets us choose how we want to be – and often a more sound and understanding response.

Reacting vs. responding

Let’s first understand the difference between reacting and responding.

As our senses take in any event – imagined or real – information travels through our limbic system. Connected to different parts of the brain, the limbic system is instinctually wired to respond immediately. When we react, this is what is being exercised. Think of it like being on autopilot.

Thinking vs. reacting supports better problem solving in stressful times.Yet, as humans, we have a slower track in our minds, which processes a lot more information and context as events occur. Because it does this, it activates a different area of the brain, the frontal cortex. This area allows for long-term thinking and long-term planning. When we respond, we are exercising this more thoughtful function.

So, when we confront experiences in our day-to-day lives, we have two options. We can react to it based on instincts and past experiences, connected to our limbic system’s desire for immediate reaction. Or, we can respond after thinking it through.

Mindfulness boosts resiliency in times of crisis

With COVID-19, most of us are reacting rapidly driven by fear and the unknown. Yet, these fight-or-flight responses shut down our ability to be resilient in times of uncertainty and stress.

Mindfulness can help boost our creative thinking and problem-solving by exercising a response, not a reaction. In turn, we may be able to envision more constructive solutions and think more positively, or at least calm our minds, even during difficult and trying times as we face COVID-19.

How to practice mindfulness during the COVID-19 outbreak

Breathe deeply
When we’re in a fearful state of mind, our breathing shallows. We must breathe to relax. Deep breathing offers an opportunity for us to deal with the emotional and mental stress. To start, I like to follow the Dali Lama’s guidance: place your hand on your heart and breathe in naturally. As you do this, cherish yourself and feel that cherishing of self. When you breathe out, cherish others – in your life, in this world. [Watch Dr. Pujari demonstrate several easy breathing techniques here.]

Focus on your body during simple activities
We consider many routine activities in our lives to be thoughtless, like hand washing or brushing our teeth. These routines are wired into our brains and muscle memory. However, by focusing on these simple activities – the feeling, sound, smell, look, taste – we open ourselves up to new feelings and perspectives. Next time you wash your hands, take note of how the water feels on your hands; what the soap smells like; the sound of the water coming out of the faucet; and even how your hands feel once you’re done. Before you know it, you’ll be mindful in many other areas of your life.

Listening to music is a mindfulness practice that can lower stress.Listen to soothing music
Music is a powerful way to relax our minds and generate positive, calm emotions. Certain pitches, tones and rhythmic structures can center us in the present. Listen to songs that fit your mood. Playing music in the background while you work or do other daily activities such as showering or getting ready can subtly soothe you and get you in the right mindset to achieve your daily goals. When feeling tense, I often listen to “Weightless” by Marconi Union. Designed to reduce anxiety, research has found this song helped reduce anxiety in 65% of listeners.

Take a break from watching the news and your social feeds
Many of us probably feel exhausted or overstimulated by the constant, unsettling COVID-19 news, yet we still want to be informed. Consider limiting the amount of time spent on your phone and online and make “instead of” time, where you do something for YOU.


Astrid PujariAstrid Pujari, M.D. is board-certified in internal, integrative and integrative holistic medicine. She practices at Virginia Mason’s Center for Integrative Medicine. Dr. Pujari specializes in holistic support for cancer, women’s health and functional medicine, holistic treatment options for gastrointestinal issues and mind-body tools.

Comments

  1. Mary Foley says:

    Thank you Dr. Pujari. Excellent timing as I needed this reminder. Enjoying “Weightless”
    at the moment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: